To see the work of great painters, you usually need to go to a museum or art gallery. To read the work of great copywriters — and learn from it — you need only to look through the mail that arrives at your doorstep every day. One masterpiece that has been mailed continuously for about 20 years is the member acquisition effort for Amnesty International.
Crafted by freelancer Jerry Huntsinger, it's evolved over time. A search of Who's Mailing What!, the world's largest library of direct mail and email samples, reveals at least seven different versions have been mailed, and there are certainly more. The latest one, in the mail since 2010, retains the basic elements that make it, in the words of direct mail guru Denny Hatch, "A Powerhouse of Guilt."
The lede is simple: "I regret to inform you that we are faced with a severe crisis here at Amnesty International." After running through a list of places around the world where human rights abuses are occurring, the letter gets to the call to action in the sixth paragraph: sign the enclosed "Message of Hope" card.
The reason for the request is then explained in the account of a former prisoner: "His name is Constantino, and for years he was held in a tiny cell; his only human contact was with his torturers." In one- and two-sentence quotes, he recounts the horrors he faced and how Amnesty eventually ended it: "On Christmas Eve the door to my cell opened, and the guard tossed in a crumpled piece of paper." This is the very same type of card the prospect has in front of them. It's a powerful dose of guilt, one of the seven great copy drivers, that lingers even as the letter continues, describing the terrible acts committed against political prisoners.